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Voltaire was the Trey Parker-Matt Stone irreverence engine of 18th century Europe, but 254 years after its publication, Candide—the best remembered of his many libelous, seditious, blasphemous, or at least discomfiting-to-the-powerful writings—is no longer recognizable as satire. Not without help, anyway. Three or four lifetimes removed from the zeitgeist it skewered, Candide, encountered in the wild—instead of in, say, ENG 555: French Literature of the Enlightenment—might just seem like a long, episodic, somewhat shapeless story of a guileless young guy who gradually groks through many bruising experiences that optimism is a workable philosophy only insofar as it motivates you to “tend to your garden” and “work and work and work some more.” Bill O’Reilly would not disagree. Neither would Henry Rollins.
Playwright and actor T.J. Edwards completed this rhyming adaptation of Candide in 2010. At Spooky Action Theater, it distributes the narration more or less equally among the nine-member cast, each of whom plays multiple roles. One at a time they enter the church basement performance space, arranged in-the-round for this production, and each pulls from a stack of letters—two-foot-high versions of those alphabet refrigerator magnets you might’ve played with as a kid—in the center. Eventually they ring the room with the phrase “The best of all possible worlds!” That’s the shrugging worldview espoused by Candide’s tutor, Pangloss, at the beginning of the tale: that events shall unfold as they should. Candide (an appealingly naïve Ryan Alan Jones) does his best to retain this sanguine outlook as his beloved Cunegonde (earnest Patricia Lynn) finds herself repeatedly raped and sold and sold and raped, a fate to which she seems resigned.
Edwards’ script isn’t a revelatory update of its source—certainly not in the way that Will Eno’s new Gnit modernizes and refreshes Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, for example. (Edwards also has the characters verbally introduce each of the novella’s 30 chapters, and the constant time-checks make the piece feel even longer than its 165 minutes, intermission included.) Thus the work of making this material accessible falls wholly to the hardworking actors, who are fun to watch even if their abundant energy isn’t as specifically directed as it might be. Adeoye exhibits an impressive physical and vocal refinement in the role of Jacques, and Michael Kevin Darnall, as Pangloss, has a commanding voice even when you can’t tell what accent he’s trying to emulate. John Tweel once again proves his worth as comedic all-rounder, having long ago mastered the cartoony style in which this production finds its most satisfying moments.
Given the minimalist feel that pervades the play—only a few simple props are featured, though that boat is pretty cool—it’s surprising that Monalisa Arias’ fight choreography is as realistic as it is. Especially considering the close quarters the actors and audience share, Candide’s violent encounters have a palpable speed and danger. Satire’s edge may be dulled over time, but blood is evergreen.